November 11, 2002

Open Source - ready for business

- By Maciej Kozinski -

The distance towards Open Source software seems to disappear. Presently,
Open Source Software is perceived as the source of savings on licence
fees, often of equal quality as commercial applications. Which tasks may
be assigned to OSS without fear? Should we introduce
OSS gradually in the company, or rather implement all at once? How much
can we save? What should be avoided? Ed note: This material was originally published in the Polish IT professionals magazine
PCkurier.

Usually penetration of free software begins with the new areas of operation
of IT systems not yet exploited by suppliers of commercial software.
This is how Linux found its way to network equipment. This is the way the Web server market was conquered by free Apache.

Time for migration?

Comprehensive migration to Open Source Software is rare. A well known
exception in Poland is implementation of Linux and StarOffice in the
"Jan III Sobieski" hotel (alongside commercial software for hotel
management). Linux is also used by the Orbis hotel network, however they
do not emphasise it. There are a number of reasons for gradual
migration. It is not easy to abandon an operating commercial system,
mainly due to the costs already incurred. Also well-understood
conservatism (implying that good is the enemy of better) plays a role,
as well as resistance to change being a part of human nature. Exchange of
information with the outside world also is important, particularly in
desktop installations - departure from data formats employed by
Microsoft Office raises doubts despite the fact that similar mechanisms
used in free applications offer similar possibilities. Sometimes the
companies circumvent this problem by using StarOffice inside the company
and using Microsoft Office to prepare the documents exchanged with the
outside world.

Necessity of subsequent upgrades of software is often an incentive to
migration towards Open Source. The more users, the more expensive the
upgrading operation becomes. Additionally, new releases often require more
efficient hardware.

Controversial costs

According to a study by the Australian company Cybersource, published in
April, the total cost of operation (TCO) of a free platform for business
based on the operating system Linux is lower by 24.7% than for the
Microsoft platform when purchasing new hardware, and 34.25% lower when
employing existing hardware. This provides considerable savings,
however the study is criticised by some people for excessive
simplification. In the model of Cybersource,training in
use of OSS has not been taken into consideration, which
is important in the case of migration from the Microsoft platform.

The majority of software costs for the Microsoft platform is related, as
the study suggests, to licence fees for back-end software - SQL server
or to e-commerce interface (Microsoft Commerce Solution). Also Visual
Studio, Exchange Server 2000 and ISA are expensive. Also the cost of
license for the operating system and Microsoft Office for 250 users, as
assumed in the study.

The Cybersource model describes an extreme, when all components of the
IT system may be replaced with free software and the purchase of commercial Linux
costs a few dozen dollars. The model, however, does not address the situation when no free software is available or is of inferior quality to the commercial products - as is the case with application servers. Given the
high cost of commercial solutions, companies may benefit from migration
to a less mature environment. Authors of the model have not considered
such a scenario, however.

Precious specialists

The main item in operating costs is salaries of IT personnel. Employing
three persons: experienced administrator, applications specialist and
junior assistant for simple tasks, is 9% more expensive [for proprietary sofware] than in the case
of free software , according to Cybersource. However, such calculations are
not always justified. Differences in costs of recruitment have not been
considered, yet before taking the decision on salary amount, the company
must find a candidate with relevant qualifications.

A hint concerning salaries may be found in Dell's webhosting offer,
covering lease of Dell PowerEdge 350 servers functioning as WWW servers.
The annual lease cost of one server, administrator's services included,
is USD $2,629 if MS Windows are used and USD $2,079 if Red Hot Linux is
installed. The installation fee is equal in both cases and amounts
to USD 299. The Linux server, including administration, is cheaper by 21% than the competing Microsoft server.

Problems with quality

When considering the issue of costs, one should take into account what
software is already present - and with what we wish to replace it. We
can find freeware such as operating system, web server or productivity
software. Worse if we plan to replace an application performing specific
tasks. It seems that finding free equivalent, or something pretending to
be such equivalent, is not difficult - there are many proposed applications
on websites cataloguing freeware or supporting its development (e.g.
SourceForge.net or freshmeat.net). Unfortunately, quantity does not always mean quality here.

While testing software that appears suitable to our needs we often see
that its functionality is overstated. We also find packages that
discourage us by reliance on a great number of other, preinstalled
components. An interesting experience is the review of software packages
labelled as "website" or "contents management system." Despite the
difference suggested by name, most packages offer identical mechanisms,
often not very elaborate, and requiring adjustment to individual needs.
Less "mature" products can surprise us, reporting error after
installation and leaving us [frustrated]. Also openness of some Open
Source products to co-operation with the external world is far from
sufficient. It happens often that even clever and useful applications may
not be applied because there is no possibility of exchanging data with
the external world.

How to find a treasure?

However, in the maze of Open Source Software one can find true
"treasures," applications that may be used for serious purposes. How to
recognise them?

They have at least one of the following characteristics: First of all,
they are developed or sponsored by a respectable company, public
institution or foundation. This guarantees planned, on-going
development, often also compliance with the applicable standards,
well-designed, open architecture, application programming interface and
communication with other applications. There are examples of such
applications: StarOffice, developed by Sun Microsystems
(available for free up to version 5.2), Apache and
related projects, whose development is sponsored by the foundation
established for this purpose, and script language Python (Python
Software Foundation). Another example is Squid, supported by the US National
Science Foundation.

One can usually trust software developed by large teams of programmers,
which reduces the risk of abandoning work on the projects, increases
their stability and universality. In turn, if the software has been
developed by one or two persons yet with long history, then its authors
will not abandon the project so easily - due to the experience gained,
emotional and often financial ties to the product. It is better to
choose products used by many users - in case the authors terminate the
projects, there will be successors with experienced helpers. The bigger
the group of users, the stronger is the pressure on the authors to
systematically upgrade the product and adjust it to the needs of customers.
Open source application should have a modular design or flexible interface
allowing for uncomplicated extension by individual users. Reliance on a
small number of widely available standard components is also a plus, and
in the case of available source text, this condition should be fulfilled
by software development tools.

If free software packages selected by the company meet these listed requirements, then risk related to their us is minimal. One should also remember that the offer of free software includes
also academic projects, functioning properly but often created for the
one purpose iand specific tasks (programs developed for graduation
theses). They are not developed later and do not meet the condition of
openness to the external world guaranteed by modular design or API
interface.

Open source in business

Dirk Hamstra, independent consultant and columnist, maintains that
around 30% of corporate business processes have unique characters
and may be supported by Open Source applications. Programs with open
source and open architecture may be tailored easily to individual needs,
as opposed to closed source software offered by a single supplier, used
in the remaining 70% of business processes. Usually open standards are
used in open solutions - i.e. TCP/IP network protocol, data exchange XML
and Web Services Description Language (WSDL) or Simple Object Access
Protocol (SOAP).

Openadaptor software, made available by the Dresdner Kleinwort
Wasserstein Bank, may serve as an example of a tool allowing for software
integration inside the company (Enterprise Application Integration) and
outside the company (B2B). This Java software, developed at the cost of
USD $5 million and three years of work, allows for exchange of data
between various middleware applications, e.g. using Java Messaging System.
In the opinion of our interlocutors, integration of open source
applications with commercial software is seamless. The company Varico,
software supplier from Poznañ, adjusted for its own needs the system of
monitoring errors and bugs in developed software called Bugzilla. One of
the modifications was integration of Bugzilla with the company's customer
database and database of licenses for Varico software. Additionally,
another Varico application under development will also be integrated
with the error monitoring system.

In the opinion of Adam Dawidziuk, Division Director in Solutions
7bulls.com, for the customers using the services of business Open Source
applications, the problem of integration is "transparent"; i.e. the
operation is performed by the integrator. Solutions allowing for
communication between applications are also often derived from Open Source.

Lessons not forgotten

The problems do not end with selection of software - ensuring continuity
of operation of computer installations and work of employees is
important as well. The first issue will be handled by a sufficiently
qualified administrator, while the second one requires training of users.
It might seem that the Microsoft's extensive training network and
popularity of Windows make it easier to recruit personnel for systems
operating in this environment. This may be the reason for the cited
opinion of the authors from Cybersource. The opinions remain divided.

"It is easier to find a good administrator for Unix (Linux) and server
applications than for MS Windows," believes Pawe³ Moszumañski, IT
Director in EGIS Polska, whose earlier responsibilities included
implementation of Linux in the "Jan III Sobieski" hotel. "Training alone
is cheaper than in the case of Microsoft Windows, because every person
graduating from university studies in IT technology is taught some Unix
administration." Access to documents and literature is easier for open
source products, and the awareness of "what is going on" inside the system [is greater].

Finding an administrator may prove easier than preparing and training
users. In theory, persons familiar with the principles of working with
particular applications should not face problems with new software.
Nevertheless, according to Pawe³ Moszumañski, "Computer usage culture" bases
at trainig courses focused on specific applications, not the
principles of usage of IT tools, and therefore migration to new software
may be difficult. Possibility of dissemination of implemented software
without license restrictions may be helpful as the programs used in the
company may be installed on the employees' home PCs.

***

Over a few recent years, the use of Open Source Software has ceased to
be a risky experiment. It may not necessarily lead to difficulties or
losses. Open Source applications are installed not only because the company
is unable to purchase commercial software. Participation of important
business software suppliers in Open Source development gave credibility
to this form of development of applications in the eyes of managers.
Reliability, flexibility, openness, easy extensions, short response time
to problems - these are the arguments of the Open Source interest group.
Competition, grown at the doorstep of the giants, has also brought a lot
of fresh good things to commercial products.

For Polish companies, Open Source is the opportunity to reduce
operation costs. It is also the opportunity to alleviate conflicts with
the law and software suppliers, though not as the latter ones would
desire. Open Source provides the insight into programming technologies
and opportunity to develop applications suited to one's own specific needs
basing on this basis. However, from opinions of our interlocutors it
follows that the most serious obstacle to use of open source applications is
unwillingness to take full responsibility for operation of installed
software.

Pawe³ Moszumañski, IT Director
EGIS Polska Sp. z o.o.

Open Source Software is widely used in our company. StarOffice (in the
future OpenOffice) is used both in the office and by our medical
representatives, and in lieu of web browser Internet Explorer and mail
software Outlook Express we employ Mozilla fitted with mail package.
This choice is motivated mainly by security issues and possibilities of
software development. Adopting this strategy allows integration of
Mozilla with Gnupg using enigmail plug-in. In further perspective this
will allow us to implement and legally sanction electronic signatures
for use inside the company. In the future, we will enable our employees
(especially those working in the field) to arrange for all formal
matters (such as holidays, leaves, advance payments, settlements) in
electronic form.

Obviously, we use Linux servers Samba, Apache, bind, ftp, htp etc. We
have created an internal information portal using Geeklog. Employees also
have access to workgroup application phpGroupware, but we
are still on early stages of implementation of this project. We also use
Open Source Software for graphics processing. Gimp, together
with the Open Source graphic material storage system, will satisfy even
the most demanding persons.

Network management is a separate area of application of open source
programs. Our IT department uses such applicationss as Snort,
ntop or Squid for network traffic optimization. VNC software for remote
servicing of workstations (also in the field) is helpful.
We find new applications for older computers [that were] withdrawn due to
insufficient computing power. We use them as printing servers,
X-terminals (no disk, with RDP protocol, serving as terminals of system
of remote access to MS Windows), "auxiliary" servers (dissipation of
services). The only limit is the knowledge and imagination of the
administrators.

We use Open Source for ensuring security, for information flow and for
entertainment. Security of communication is enhanced by the mechanisms
contained in, among others, OpenSSL. Flow of information is facilitated
by the mentioned above Geeklog and mail exchange software and workgroup
software - webmail, cyrus, phpGroupware. Entertainment is provided by, among other things, jabber sever (in response to the popularity among users of the Polish chat engine GaduGadu).

There are more benefits from using Open Source Software than only
savings on licence fees. Possibility of fast response to errors is
crucial. Errors may be both reported to the group developing
program/system, and tackled by ourselves. Good documentation of Open
Source (unfortunately, not as a rule) software is helpful in such cases.
Individual extension of the application and adjusting it to the
organisation's needs are also important factors.

Dorota Madajczyk, Sales Engineering Manager
Sun Microsystems Poland

If we are to speak about Open Source in our company, it would be wise to define first what company and applications are concerned. An Open Source billing system or drug manufacturing management application will benefit
neither user, who need supplier's guarantees, nor the author of such code.

The story is different with small companies or office work in corporations.
Fundamental IT components necessary in small and medium size companies
include file servers, Internet servers, firewalls, and plug-ins for users of
office applications and accounting or company management software.
Choice of open source software is justified in such cases. Linux with
NFS and all network services is the operating system for servers. Many
Web servers and browsers, as well as firewalls, may be found in the
public domain. Office work may be performed using Open Office (known as
StarOffice - present commercial version of OpenOffice) in lieu of MS
Office. "Terminals," usually PCs, are the source of the greatest
problems. We are trying to achieve the situation when user pays no
attention to the operating system in use as long as it is stable, secure
and supports relevant applications - therefore Linux is also to be
considered.

There is still "thin client", but this technology has not yet been
adopted by "free programmers." Solutions similar to "thin client"
technology may be implemented using Linux and PCs - control of operation
of "terminals" may be performed and their configurations may be defined
and controlled on the server.

Unfortunately, Open Source Software makes suppliers obsolete, while the
supplier - at least in theory - provides assistance in case of problems.
Information and assistance must be sought individually in the Internet
and in publications. This is the main reason why Open Source Software is
not suitable for everybody. A company using Open Source applications needs its own IT specialist, "technical support" - someone interested in and familiar with such software. In smaller companies this role may be played by
computer science and technology students. Such persons look after the implemented software and monitor the related information.

Cost savings and dissatisfaction with currently used applications and
their suppliers may serve as the motive to migrate from commercial
software to Open Source. Some users, having non-typical requirements,
will benefit from the possibility of introducing changes to software
without respect to the supplier's consent or control. The greatest
obstacle to migration is usually the habits of users and decision
makers. Therefore it is recommended to make decision on use of Open
Source Software as early as possible, even on the stage of development
of IT environment.

Marcin Stec - IBM Polska
AIX & Linux Education Specialist

In IBM around 50% of profit is generated by providing services. The
critical aspects of service projects are price of software and service.

From the perspective of a service company, Open Source Software has two
advantages: It is cheap, and it offers the fastest and the best technical
support in form of specialists-enthusiasts in the whole world, available
through Internet round the clock.

The fundamental problem related to integration of the existing
traditionally used commercial software with Open Source Software is lack
of standards, or purposeful standard shifting by software suppliers
intending to monopolise the market. One should remember that IBM is the
third largest software supplier in the world, thus one might think that
competition on part of Open Source Software constitutes a real threat to
the company's position in this sector of the market. Instead of
promoting closed software, IBM stresses integration of its applications
on Open Source platforms. We believe that in this way both products will
find their market niches, and the company will have a strong position both
as software supplier and as a supplier of services, focused on sales of
abilities and knowledge.

Adam Dawidziuk, Director Division
Solutions 7bulls.com

It follows from our experience that integration of Open Source Software
with commercial software takes place in three situations.

In the search for savings on IT costs, Open Source Software may be used as
software in an independent layer (e.g. in the sense of OSI model layers) as
opposed to commercial software. For instance, network operation
(routing, firewall) may be performed using open source programs (e.g.
Linux); Linux or FreeBSD may be used as the operating system etc. IT
system remains an integrated system, while commercial software and open
source software remains independent in a sense.

The second case is use of open source applications for extending
functionality of commercial software, in particular for data exchange
between two existing systems (such as commercial systems). For instance,
quick change of data encoding or creating reports (e.g. HTML, PDF, PS)
basing on contents of commercial database. For such purposes one need
not purchase extended modules to the already present commercial system,
and in most cases all that's needed is to write a program based on open
source code, provided data formats are known. Obviously, the code should
be clear and documented on the level of functionality and realisation of
functions.

In the third situation, commercial systems and open source systems
operate in one layer and we face the problem of data exchange. Thanks to
flexibility of open source applications, one may develop the adequate
communication interface much faster and easier, provided data formats
are known.

Rafa³ £o¿yñski, General Director
Varico, Poznañ

We decided to implement on our own the error monitoring system for our
applications based on Open Source software and tools.

This decision followed
from high price of commercial systems, limit of software users and no
possibilities of introducing modification to commercial systems.
Our adaptation of Bugzilla, translated into Polish and with the code
adjusted to our needs, is called VIP. We got acquainted very fast with
the technology of Bugzilla. I estimate that the costs of installation,
rewriting date from the old system, training and code adjustments, are
less than 10,000 PLN (ca 4000 EU).

VIP system is written in Perl language and is based on MySQL database.
Its advantages include, among other, very fast and simple interface (WWW
browser), no need of installation of [its] own versions on "terminals", no need
of data transmission and data input, extended analytical capabilities,
instant access to the work performed by programmers, notifications on
system changes via e-mail (on demand), fast and easy search for errors
and proposals, planning and management of versions of the software.

Monitoring and eliminating errors is conducted as follows: Any person
inputs to the application information on an error or suggestion of change
to the system. VIP automatically appoints the programmer responsible for
the program with the error, and sends notification via e-mail. A programmer
who receives such notification either accepts the error or rejects it,
providing adequate justification [for rejection], e.g. when the reported error is not a
result of flaws in the program but follows from failure of user's
hardware. If there is a problem with the program, the programmers begin
to work on elimination of the reported error. After completion of their
work, employees responsible for testing verify whether the error is
actually eliminated. If the result is positive, a new version of the
program is generated. Person reporting errors may be notified via e-mail
on error status changes.

We have also developed the extension of VIP application with the work
plans and entering other events to the system, e.g. client complaints.
We are also developing e-learning application in PHP, which will
be integrated with VIP.

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